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Canada

Is Trudeau trying to reap the benefits of resisting a NAFTA deal? Harper under scrutiny after new report

Justin Trudeau said Friday he's speaking to a number of former prime ministers about NAFTA, including Stephen Harper. He said he doesn't want to play politics and “our relationship with U.S. is far too important to play partisan politics."

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to include new interviews and pointed out the affiliations of three experts. (8:30 p.m. ET)

New polling seems to back up a reported suggestion by Stephen Harper that standing up to Donald Trump is politically popular for Justin Trudeau.

But one expert is less confident about his reported claim that the government is resisting reaching a NAFTA deal in order to continue reaping the benefits of being seen to stand up to the unpopular president, saying there’s little sign a deal is actually ready to be cut at this point.

READ MORE: Liberals rise in polls as Canadians rally behind Trudeau in spat with Trump: Ipsos poll

“I don’t think there’s a deal to be had there right now. Trump has made the fight around the world,” said Mike Moffatt, director of policy and research at Canada 2020, a think tank that is heavily linked to the Liberal Party (its president was chief digital strategist on Justin Trudeau’s federal election campaign) and an assistant professor at Western University’s Ivey School of Business.

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“He [Trump] hasn’t been able to get a deal on any of those, so is every other country in the world being obstinate? No. I think the problem is Trump.”

Tim Powers, vice-president of Summa Strategies who has long worked with the federal Conservatives, says while Trudeau might be getting a bump in public opinion because of his recent dealings with Trump, there are no signs his government is deliberately delaying sealing a deal.

“While it is true to say [Trudeau] gets a public opinion pop from conflict with Donald Trump, and perhaps he should have pursued an early bilateral trade deal with the U.S., it is not obvious that he is ragging the puck on getting a NAFTA deal done,” said Powers.

“Trump himself has suggested in recent U.S. media interviews that he doesn’t want a deal until after the American midterms.”

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Greg MacEachern, vice president of Proof Strategies and a Liberal strategist, said the reported suggestion from Harper doesn’t fit with how the government has handled Trump so far.

“It would’ve been very easy for the prime minister to start a fight in the early days. Canadians would’ve loved that,” he said.

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“When the president changed the tone of negotiations is when Canadians responded and retaliated in terms of our own tariffs. In terms of a political win, I think the bigger win for Trudeau, and ultimately Canada, will be getting a NAFTA deal.”

WATCH: Harper meets with top U.S. trade adviser in Washington

Harper meets with U.S. top trade adviser in Washington
Harper meets with U.S. top trade adviser in Washington

Jamie Ellerton, who worked as a political strategist for then-immigration minister Jason Kenney and former Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak, says while he doesn’t think Trudeau is intentionally delaying a NAFTA deal, the prime minister does stand to gain from his public disputes with Trump.

“I think the prime minister, in a kind of crass, political sense, gets the benefit of both sides of the issue right now. If he is able to get a NAFTA deal, he’ll of course get the deserved credit for it,” Ellerton told Global News. “At the same time, it’s no secret that Canadians don’t like President Trump, I think the reasons for that are quite obvious.”

“I do not believe that Trudeau is delaying [NAFTA], and I think with the hindsight of 20-20 down the road, when a deal ultimately gets done… we can then at that point look back and say what his strategy might’ve been. But for the time being, the status quo of the current NAFTA agreement really does remain in place.

“Short of anything substantial happening, I think the government of Canada led by Prime Minister Trudeau… is ultimately looking to get the best deal for Canada.”

Andrew MacDougall, former communications director for Harper, also tweeted on the matter.

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He pointed out while there may be questions over whether the former prime minister erred in airing those concerns, even among a private audience, it’s also worth asking whether it would be better for Canada just cut a deal on NAFTA and hopefully deflect some of Trump’s attention.

WATCH BELOW: McNaughton recommends ways Canada’s premiers can help in NAFTA talks

McNaughton recommends ways Canada’s premiers can help in NAFTA talks
McNaughton recommends ways Canada’s premiers can help in NAFTA talks

On Thursday night, CTV News published a report saying Harper had told business leaders during a private meeting in Montreal last week that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is resisting making a NAFTA deal to score political points from standing up to Donald Trump.

In his remarks, Harper said it would be “foolish” for either the Canadian or American governments to resist making a deal for political points.

“The reality is that the Government of Canada believes today that it is doing very well, the fight with Trump is good for it politically, it is winning,” Harper was quoted as saying.

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In a press conference Friday, Trudeau was asked about the comments and whether he has reached out to Harper to potentially help in NAFTA talks.

“I have had many conversations with a broad range of people including almost all of our former prime ministers including Mr. Harper to ensure everyone understands this is an all-hands-on-deck approach, not a partisan approach,” he said.

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“I’m not going to play politics on that. I’m going to remain focused on getting the right deal for Canada.”

WATCH BELOW: Federal government and Ontario ‘aligned’ on NAFTA: Trudeau

Federal government and Ontario ‘aligned’ on NAFTA: Trudeau
Federal government and Ontario ‘aligned’ on NAFTA: Trudeau

News of the comments comes as an exclusive Ipsos poll for Global News suggests support for the Trudeau government has jumped by five points this month.

Fifty-five per cent of Canadian respondents approve of Trudeau, up from 50 per cent in June and 44 per cent in March.

READ MORE: 4 challenges NAFTA negotiations are facing as deadline looms

While a number of factors are likely at play, including the fact the House of Commons is on summer break, the increase in support comes as Trudeau and the government double down on retaliatory tariffs imposed in response to the Trump administration’s own levies on steel and aluminum.

“The summer months are working very well for Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals,” Mike Colledge, president of Ipsos Canada, told Global News, “in part because of the response to the war of words for trade tariffs spat with Mr. Trump that rallied both the Liberal base as well as those who opposed the Liberals.”

It also comes as senior Canadian ministers prepare to head to Mexico next week for talks with the outgoing and incoming administrations there.

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WATCH BELOW: Canada’s negotiators say NAFTA talks have stalled

Canada’s negotiators say NAFTA talks have stalled
Canada’s negotiators say NAFTA talks have stalled

A government source said NAFTA will figure largely in those talks but did not indicate when official negotiations might resume.

“Work has been ongoing on NAFTA and we remain ready to meet anytime, anywhere,” the individual said.

NAFTA negotiations stalled in May and June over several contentious sticking points, including the issue of a sunset clause.

Trump claimed during his closing press conference at the G7 Summit in Quebec City that there would be a sunset clause.

Trudeau rebutted that in his own press conference hours later, prompting Trump to launch a Twitter tirade that, along with the implementation of retaliatory tariffs, seems to have fuelled a wave of patriotism among Canadian leaders and citizens from all stripes.

The pair had their first face-to-face meeting since then while at the NATO Leaders Summit in Brussels last week.

That talk, held on the margins of the summit, focused on trade and NAFTA.

There’s no set date for when official negotiations on the trade deal will resume.